One Dollar Board Targets Students

The Raspberry Pi was made to be inexpensive with an eye toward putting them into schools. But what about programs targeted at teaching embedded programming? There are plenty of fiscally-starved schools all over the world, and it isn’t uncommon for teachers to buy supplies out of their own pockets. What could you do with a board that cost just one dollar?

That’s the idea behind the team promoting the “One Dollar Board” (we don’t know why they didn’t call it a buck board). The idea is to produce a Creative Commons design for a simple microcontroller board that only costs a dollar. You can see a video about the project, below.

Despite being licensed under Creative Commons, there isn’t much detail available that we could find. It appears the board uses an 8 pin Atmel CPU (and the FAQ indicates that the board will use the Arduino IDE). We’re guessing that it’s essentially a Digispark / Adafruit Trinket / ATtiny85 with V-USB installed.

The crowdfunding campaign page lists the following details:

  • CPU: 8-bit
  • GPIO (input and output ports): 6
  • USB Interface: Yes
  • Memory: Flash 8 kBytes (expandable to 256 kBytes)
  • Spaces for expansions: WiFi ESP8266, Memory 24C256, H bridge L293
  • Voltage: 5V
  • Indicator LEDs: 2
  • Reset Button: Yes
  • Fitting Spaces: 4 (compatible with Arduíno UNO or similar)
  • Quick Guide: The English board comes with a printed guide in other languages.

If it is an ATTtiny85-based design, two of those “GPIO” pins will be eaten up by the USB programmer, and maybe two more by the indicator LEDs. And some of that 8 kB of flash is consumed by the bootloader. In short, it’s not going to be able to do everything all at once. Still, it could be just the thing for getting your feet wet.

But the real story is the price. The dollar price tag doesn’t include shipping or taxes, of course, but even getting the price down that low is impressive. Time will tell if the market has an appetite for a dollar board. If we had to guess, the real value will be in ready-made course material.

There are plenty of educational boards out there, but few (if any) cost a buck.

75 thoughts on “One Dollar Board Targets Students

      1. I think this is more geared for supplying students with boards to teach them programming. The price tag gives the school incentive to order hundreds since they can afford to provide one to every student.

      2. Quick! Port the Arduino IDE to the Raspberry PI Zero! That’ll go far toward solving the problem as found in Third World countries… like the USA. One suggestion about this “buck-duino” card: Ensure the USB is not so tricky to program as it is with the Leonardo. (and other Arduinos with the “flaw”)

    1. You don’t get an USB bootloader at those STM8 boards (in fact the USB connector is there for power supply only). One dollar for a project we actually know something about (differente of those dark-market STM8) is indeed impressive.

        1. Hardware debugging (SWIM for STM32F8 and SWD for STM32F) at $3 is more than worth it in my book. You’ll learn a lot more of what’s going on inside a microcontroller in real time. Unless your $1 board is self hosting, you have to also count the PC too. So a $3 is on the order of a fraction of 1% of the development cost.

          1. IDE with assembler is a strange question as IDE & compilers in open source world are separate projects. There are the usual commercial path e.g. IAR demo if you want native IDE.

            SDCC supports STM8. (I had play with SDCC previously on 8051 and Z80.) sdasstm8 is the STM8 assembler in SDCC. There are IDE that support SDCC. (I insists that the editor have to support multiple windows and NOT waste my time confined in tabbed ones having to flip back and forth in.)

            I use Programmer’s notepad and makefile with SDCC. Strangely enough, this arrangement is also used by some Japanese for ARM development. Wish I know what they use as their source code debugger.

            I only look at the STM8 series briefly, but decided to go to the STM32F030 instead because of Keil MDK. The $0.20 difference isn’t enough for me to want to use a 8-bit chip.

  1. For a buck a board AND ready made course material I’ll buy a couple of hundred myself and drop them off at the Boys and Girls club just up the street from me. Then I’d go talk to the schools. At that price for something they can learn on AND take home is too good to pass up.

      1. $2.50 shipping on that ARM board. That’s included in the $1 board.

        Yeah, I know the $1 board is extremely limited, with what looks like 4 GPIOs.

        But in terms for a First Teaching Board thing, how far are they going to go?

        The real problem is the kids need to write their code on something to upload to it. And lots of schools use Chromebooks. Is there an online Arduino IDE that you could use on a Chromebook?

          1. But running a full-fledged OS defeats the simplicity and security that chromebooks are supposed to have. Anyway I doubt most schools would bother installing a mysterious OS on their computers.

    1. 8 bits make lots of sense for some applications.
      I’m tempted to buy 30 odd and put them in all the light switches and kitchen appliances, have them talk to each other a few sensors and a real time clock. :D

          1. Not necessarily a relevant question as the memory can be a magnetic tape, or whatever, so not part of the construction method discussed.

  2. I get Arduino ProMini clones for about $1.70 apiece that blow this out of the water and they fit a standard breadboard for added versatility. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Also, Africa is a big continent, without more specifics this is just buzzwords and feel-good marketing. How much time did this team spend there researching the actual need?

    1. What I was thinking about was the more expensive, but more functional, BBC Micro:bit device. The crocodile clip/banana plug I/O is a nice feature for the intended market, for example. And it has 25 LEDs!

    2. Similar here, I use loads of Arduino Nano’s when I want easy USB programming, and Pro Minis when I’m really tight on space and power. Pro minis have an odd pinout where some pins are offset and running, so you cant use all of them easily on a breadboard. Nano’s are 100% breadboard compatible and I tend to get them for about A$2.70, bargain!

      Even better, there are terminal breakout board for the Nano for a couple of bucks, and they make an easy way to fit the nano into a project. If you dont need all of the I/O you can remove some of the header pins and install jumper wire to route power to extra terminals, and it still looks reasonably tidy.

    3. That is where all the people who have commented here about it needing a computer to boot load.
      Everybody knows that every child in Africa has a laptop now through the One Laptop/Child project.
      (The previous 2 sentences are sarcasm, for those who mistook them for truth)

  3. You can build STM32F030F4 breakout boards for less than $1.
    (The crystal is optional if you don’t need very accurate clock and low jitter.)

    TSSOP20 Breakout PCB $1.66 US for 10
    STM32F030F4 $4.40 US for 10
    you’ll need a few passives. You can program and debug using STLink. There are $3 STLink V2 clones from China or you can use a STM32F discovery board as a programmer..

    You can get a licensed Keil MDK for the STM32F0 series for free without no code limitation.

          1. The free tool chain doesn’t have some of the nice stuff on Keil. Being able to have a GUI that shows the register with annotation of what the bit does in hardware debugger is very nice.

            Not every one like Ecllipse based IDE if there are also better tools around at $0 cost.

            BTW I am not confused about the Keil free license for STM32F0 at all if you read my original post that [Paulo Andrade] replied to without addressing the license.

  4. I’ve ordered 25 as I think they will be a great help in teaching electronics. The simpler the better for a start. I know there are those out there who look down their noses at 8bit chips but even learning how to fit an app into a limited amount of resources has a lot of merit. My first processor was the Signetics 2650 and it had 1K of ROM with the total addressing range of just 32K. But with that 1K, I was able to add an extra couple of commands by optimizing the code. Then I did a memory mapped video display! I’m sure the experience of assembly language and getting to the nuts and bolts of the processor was a good way to learn.
    Even so, programming for example, with the Arduino IDE, is a lot easier to explain to newbies than assembly code, or some of the more complicated IDEs. It will be interesting to see how these boards shape up.
    Yes, I think “Buck Board” would have been great!
    Years ago I was involve in the design of a super phosphate spreader controller. It was given a name something like “SSC” but I wanted to call it “Scatter Brain” but was voted down.

    1. I think you better read up on the limitations their choosen technology imposes. ATTiny is an 8 pin DIP package, with just 6 I/O pins. And at least 4 are taken up already (2 for USB, 2 for the expansion flash). So that leaves you with just 2 usable pins, assuming that you disable the RESET pin (1 if you don’t). That Signetics you mention likely had more I/O than that …

      Also from the programming point of view, you will discover that having to write your code to run whenever the USB servicing code “has time” (it is bitbanged USB, all in software, ATTiny85 doesn’t have USB transciever) otherwise the host PC disconnects your gizmo is not trivial business. Certainly not a platform I would want to teach programming on.

      1. Actually, the two USB pins in the ATTINY family free up for normal use shortly after power up, if a USB connection is not detected. So you really have four I/Os available. This requires a special script in the Arduino IDE but once you know it, it’s simple to use. Have fun!!

  5. When I read the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics; I somehow instinctively understood the featured computer kit would eventually lead to something big. However at the time I never got into it for the simple reason I didn’t have any practical useful applications for the technology. Unless students of all ages are shown a path to discover how learning to write code and integrating micro-controllers can make a positive change in their lives, these initiatives are going to look like more boring word problems.. I understand it was design the way it was to reduce parts count, that USB connection is going to be unusable on a great number of computers that poorer families can afford. I’m pretty low income I could and would supply ten of these a month if a teacher can show me how they would use them to spark interest in electronics.

      1. I wasn’t speaking of any lack of USB ports. Just stating the that the design. might make it unusable with USB ports of many computers be because of physical interference with the case and adjacent USB ports. Often on tower cases the ports are in a recess crowed with multiple ports. As always YMMV.

  6. I dunno. For under $2 you can get a full Arduino Nano clone.
    Some of these “educational” projects seem to border on “scam” – the boards are cheap, and then they get packaged into “classroom kits” with lots of overpriced companion components, infrastructure, textbooks, and expensive training. (or: let’s get non-profit status so me and my friends can collect charitable donations and get paid for designing hobbyist class boards that wouldn’t otherwise be very interesting. More “boondoggle” than “scam”, but not really accomplishing much in the way of the supposed “educational” goals.) (tell me about how well those OLPC laptops have worked…)

  7. I think that this board is going to be just a nightmare to use. If it is using ATTiny85, then there is no hardware USB (ATTiny85 doesn’t have it) and they are using something like V-USB – i.e. bitbanging low speed USB.

    The consequences? Well, V-USB is very finicky about USB ports, works with some, doesn’t with others, because the USB support is not standard compliant due to the corner cutting necessary to make the MCU keep up with the USB signalling.

    The user’s code needs to be all written around the needs of the USB servicing, which takes about 50-80% of the CPU time. ATTiny85 has 8kB of flash, from my experience about half of that is going to be taken just by the bootloader and the USB firmware, not leaving much for user code.

    The marketing is also very misleading – 8kB of flash (expandable to 256kB) – yeah, but the 8kB are *program* flash on that ATTiny, I2C/SPI flash cannot be used to store/execute code on these MCUs.

    “Internet of things” – my ass, there is nothing on that board that would actually permit one to connect to that internet in the first place. And with the limited I/O you cannot even really add it.

    So yeah, $1 board – but you get what you pay for. If someone is selling this as something for edu market, they have to be smoking crack (or equate educational with cheap). The limitations are so bad that it would be next to useless beyond blinking some LED.

    The $5 Raspberry Pi Zero would be vastly more useful than this for educational use. Or if a school wants several hundreds of these, they can easily order few hundred of Arduino clones made to measure, that cannot take more than about $10/apiece, the cheapest clones on AliExpress are around $4.

    1. I’m torn on this device. First, the cost of the device is nothing compared to the cost of getting a teacher trained and getting a curriculum together. So whether it’s $1 or $5 is probably irrelevant. Cheap, however, is important if you’re going to be giving 30-60 of them out. But the details are marketing.

      It’s going to be all about the software and applications. There’s a lot you can do with two pins — datalogging, bit-banged serial, WS2812 LEDs, etc. A creative teacher could really make this work.

      The “developing world” angle seems like rosy-glasses optimism to me, though. There’s too much infrastructure presupposed — like kids with laptops and reliable (USB) power.

      But I’d totally teach this class in a rich high school district.

    2. +1
      In developed countries most students can afford a cheap Arduino clone, or better yet, RPi Zero (they spend more on games). In developing countries most schools have limited number of computers, and many of them are as old as students that use them. In really poor, third world countries they don’t have enough schools, libraries or hospitals, so this would be quite low on their priority list.
      If someone wants to teach programming in school, he should teach Python or some old version of BASIC, or even LOGO. To make an interesting educational board/set for kids it requires a lot more than 1 dollar PCB.
      And why they didn’t select a microcontroller that has hardware USB support? The cheapest one I found in local distributor was PIC16F1454, and from 32-bit family a STM32F042G6U6…

      1. You are right. Programming is about discipline of mind and approach to problem solving.

        It could be more interesting for the kids to be introduced to programming by social playing – acting in roles of computer components, using only limited operations, to solve a problem. Almost all important and even many advanced topics could be covered that way. Just like with counting on our fingers, most of us are secretly anthropomorphising CPUs when analysing code flow, so such game would give very similar experience.

        1. I remember seeing a board game years ago, where the players were “robots” and the cards drawn were simple commands, much like assembly language, turn left, advance one step, back up, remain stationary, And various boards could be attached to the main board, each with pitfalls/traps, and could be attached in various ways to each other. And you could “bump” other players off of their path with your robot or force them into a trap. I watched some adults play it, and wish I had played it at the time. I don’t recall if you could store up your commands and use them as needed, but…

  8. I do like the product but I am developing a serious aversion against these types of pitch-videos. This one ticks all the barf marks!

    – Poor kids in Africa that need nothing more than some cheap ass electramolics.
    – Upbeat worn out happy music in the background.
    – Random shot of mostly unrelated elatromic tinkering.
    – Endorsements of random people that have no authority in the topic.
    – Pretentious marketing babble of how this will transform EVERYTHANG. Fo just a dolla!

    It missing one tiny thing so for the ultimate in pitch barf-worthiness:

    – creators filmed slightly from the side against a soft background speak in this weird unnatural apple-style marketing wank way

    God how I hate these videos.


  9. Oh and one more thing: These poor pcb-starved kids in Africa, that can’t afford a 2 dollar ESP8266…
    How on earth are these kids supposed to get the computer to program these 1-dolla boards? Doesn’t make sense, marketing wank. Just present it for what it is and leave out the godawful feel-good bullshit.

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